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You Believe That?! Are You Crazy?!

Do you believe that:

1. A current race of evil, dominant people is the product of genetic experiments performed over 6,000 years ago. A spaceship, directed by a superhuman entity, has been hovering over the United States for several decades and contains bombs that will someday be dropped and kill all of these immoral people.

                                      Or,

2. If you live by rules set down by a being from outer space and, if you are male, after death you will one day dwell on your own planet where you will be able to have sex with various spirit wives. You will then become the father of many spirit children that will someday be born on earth or another planet.

                                      Or,

3. You have been defiled at birth, your thoughts and behaviors are being monitored and judged by a supernatural being who demands obedience to his commands, and you will be condemned to an eternity of unspeakable suffering should you fail to comply. If obedient, you can participate in a ceremony of eating the flesh of a deceased holy man, which allows you to gain a spiritual union and receive grace from this supernatural being.   

Do you think people who passionately hold these beliefs are crazy? This is a question Shawn O’Connor and I sought to answer (he was the lead investigator on this study).1 The answer may surprise.

The Sky and Cannibalism

But first some background. 

The sky, the cosmos, forms our primal experience of life; gives us life, sustains us, haunts us, overwhelms us. The blinding, life-giving sun that lights our days, the enigmatic illuminations appearing in the night sky, the storms that thunder and rain down upon us, the seasons that give life and take it away, have been sources of wonder, awe, fear, and trepidation for as long as humans have walked this planet. Heavenly powers hold dominion over earthly matters, and we are obviously denizens of something much greater than ourselves. Uncountable numbers of religions, spiritual practices, and sacred beliefs have arisen to fathom our place in the cosmos. The first two beliefs above are attempts to do so.

Although popular opinion holds that cannibalism is rare, it is quite pervasive and dates back into the depths of human prehistory. Many motives lead to cannibalism, starvation being a one. But there are others, including ritualistic cannibalism that is part of religious rites and sacred practices. It is often believed that by ingesting the body of the dead, the powers and wisdom of the deceased are conferred to the individual. The third belief above resides in this family of convictions.

What is Crazy?

The three beliefs and practices sure seem crazy. But what do we mean by crazy? Crazy is not an official diagnosis in the psychiatric Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of mental disorders. The above beliefs, however, could be labeled delusions, which the DSM defines as “fixed beliefs that are not amenable to change in light of conflicting evidence. . . Delusions are deemed bizarre if they are clearly implausible and not understandable to same-culture peers and do not derive from ordinary life experiences.” 

Religious beliefs inhabit an indeterminate region in the DSM formulation: “Some religious and supernatural beliefs (e.g., evil eye, causing illness through curses, influence of spirits) may be viewed as bizarre and possibly delusional in some cultural contexts but be generally accepted in others. However, elevated religiosity can be a feature of many presentations of psychosis.”

Several issues to note. Delusions are not considered delusions if understandable to same-culture peers. So, what might seem very bizarre and delusional may simply be the result of ignorance about cultural beliefs that are not held by same-culture peers. Are we more likely to assess pathology when we are ignorant of the religion? And what are we to make of “elevated religiosity?” When does fervent religious belief become psychotic?

The three beliefs highlighted above are integral to 3 major religions practiced in the United States: Nation of Islam, Mormonism, and Catholicism. The beliefs are stated without including identifying information that would reveal that they are part of an established religion. Shawn and I wanted to know if simply adding identifying information (i.e., for the third belief, that the individual is Catholic who believed in transubstantiation) without changing the core beliefs would alter the assessment of psychopathology by trained mental health workers. 

When the religious beliefs were not identified, the Mormon and Catholic based beliefs were rated significantly more pathological than when they were identified. Nation of Islam was rated highly pathological in both identified and not identified conditions.2 Quite bizarre and unsettling beliefs are thus transformed from delusions to acceptable convictions simply because they are revealed to be part of religious traditions that we, as same-culture peers, understand.

Who Is Crazy?

How, then, are we to consider religious beliefs held by unfamiliar cultures we do not understand? Consider the following, which are currently being practiced somewhere in the world:3

  • Your baby is born under abhorrent planetary influences and fated to kill their spouse when they marry. To divest themselves of this curse, they are married to an animal, usually a dog or a goat, or even a tree. 
  • To celebrate the destruction of a demon army by the son of god, you must fast for 48 days, followed by piercing your body with lances and hooks, which are then used to pull heavy objects that are attached to the hooks. 
  • All conventional categories and opposites are illusionary manifestations an underlying unity. Violating social taboos is an spiritual act of asserting this unity. This includes retrieving floating bodies found in a holy river and eating them. 
  • To thank the gods for being blessed with a baby, when your baby is 3 months old, you immerse them in boiling water. 
  • If you are male, your penis is surgically mutilated to cement your contract with god.
  • You toss your baby from a 50-foot tower into a sheet to make them stronger and healthier.
  • To cure your child of a disability, on a day of a solar eclipse you bury them in sand up to their necks for up to 6 hours.
  • You anoint your baby with holy water. Failure to do so might result in the baby being consigned to eternal suffering.
  • To celebrate your faith and devotion to a god who walked through red-hot coals unscathed, you do the same, following a holy man who begins the fire walking procession with pot on his head filled with holy water. 
  • Spiritual advancement is achieved by fasting on a sacred day. The following day you paint and decorate cows and bulls, garland yourself, lie on the ground, and let the animals trample you. This ensures that your desires will be fulfilled and brings prosperity to your community. 

This is only a minuscule sample of all the beliefs and rituals that have been practiced throughout human existence. Each tribe thinks theirs are reasonable. Simply sharing common meanings, beliefs, and practices with others makes us sane; rescues us from going crazy. We seek footholds on the ineffable, desperately clutching our own ceremonies of certainty to assuage our existential angst and panic. This is our human plight.

You believe that? I do, which you might think is crazy.

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  1. O’Connor, S. & Vandenberg, B. (2005). Psychosis or Faith? Clinicians Assessment of Religious Beliefs. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 73, 610-616.
  2. We think the reason why Nation of Islam was judged pathological in both conditions is because it is the least familiar of the three and the belief involved violence to others.
  3. Most of these are found in India. See:https://www.indiatimes.com/culture/who-we-are/11-indian-customs-and-rituals-thatll-make-your-eyes-pop-out-of-your-head-233398.html

2 Comments

  1. Matthew

    “Simply sharing common meanings, beliefs, and practices with others makes us sane; rescues us from going crazy.” So the people who commit mass suicide because of a cult are not “crazy.” Just because an idea is shared among your group does not mean that it is not “crazy.” (Though that word is pretty squishy.)

    • Brian Vandenberg

      Thank you, Matthew for your thoughtful comment.

      The study I mentioned addressed how a diagnosis can change from delusional to sane by simply recognizing that the beliefs are “understandable to same-culture peers.” The DSM also states that “Some religious and supernatural beliefs (e.g., evil eye, causing illness through curses, influence of spirits) may be viewed as bizarre and possibly delusional in some cultural contexts but be generally accepted in others.”

      The examples in my post are all practiced somewhere in the world, are “understandable to same-culture peers”, and accepted in these cultures. Many might very well be deemed delusional in our culture (the DSM is very “squishy” about all of this), even criminal in some cases because they violate our basic assumptions about what us acceptable.

      Your example of mass suicide would likely be unacceptable in most cultures, although what might make it unacceptable in some cultures is not the mass suicide, but the beliefs that led to the suicide (think of Japanese mass suicide and the importance of honor). Do I think it is crazy, delusional, or whatever word you want to use? Absolutely. Do I think the fact it is shared by others makes it sane? No. But that doesn’t mean that within another cultural context, they might be deemed “understandable.” The issue is that the cultural context confers understanding and legitimacy, and given the mind-boggling spectrum of cultural religious beliefs/practices, this renders almost anything acceptable in some cultural context. The DSM tries to to have it both ways regarding religious beliefs and practices; giving culture a central role in determining delusions, but also recognizing that there are (unspecified) limits to what can be allowed (i.e., evil eye, curses, and spirit influences).

      So, in my view, religious beliefs, meanings, and practices attempt to provide footholds on the ineffable, attempt to tame and render ready-made the unfathomable mystery that we find ourselves a part of; to keep us from being overwhelmed by our existential angst and panic—–to rescue us from going insane.

      There are many other issues imbedded in your comment, including: What is a cult? (Christians and Mormons were once a cult, for example). Is the distinction between sane and delusional a dimension that is particular to our secular culture (in contrast to orthodoxy vs heresy)? Are there forms of mental suffering that are universal across cultures (schizophrenia and major depression, for example)?

      Phew! I hope this addresses you concern. If not, then let’s have lunch and discuss it further.

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